In Baghdad, elusive electricity is rare delight

An operator of a privately run neighborhood generator stands in front of the haphazard panel where wires to individual homes and shops are connected in central Baghdad.
An operator of a privately run neighborhood generator stands in front of the haphazard panel where wires to individual homes and shops are connected in central Baghdad. Haider Al-Zubaidi / MCT

Child: "Mother, mother! Daddy was electrocuted!" Mother: "We have power?" — Popular Iraqi joke

BAGHDAD — It was October, but still too hot to sleep inside, so the eight members of the Faekh family climbed onto the roof of their house for another night of torment. It wasn't just the nagging fear of a bomb on their road and the thumping passage of U.S. helicopters. It wasn't just the clatter and exhaust from generators all over the neighborhood. It was impossible to sleep well when they had to keep constant watch on a light by the front gate, a light that wasn't even on.

Then, suddenly, it was.

"God bless Prophet Muhammad," said the mother, Akhbal.

She and her teenage daughter, Abeer, leaped up. No matter that it was after 2 a.m. The power was on and so was the race to harness it. They had an hour to wash clothes and iron them so that Akhbal's husband, Haidar, and the six children could be presentable at work and school.

It was the second of two hours of electricity they get each day from the state-run power grid. Four and a half years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, it's never certain when the power will arrive, just that one electrified hour will come in the morning, another at night. U.S. reconstruction officials say that on average, electricity is available 10 hours a day, but Akhbal, a small woman whose face is worn beyond her 48 years, doesn't know anyone who gets close to that much.

Before the war, Baghdadis got 16 to 24 hours of power a day, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington research center. Brookings said that in September they got 7.6.

"Six hours even, that would be mercy from God," Akhbal said.

In Baghdad, whether you're awake or asleep, electricity seeps into nearly every moment of life, because of its absence, its sudden appearance or the noise and smoke as thousands of private generators create it.

There's almost nowhere in the city to escape that rattling chorus. The noise underpins most conversations, conversations that often are about electricity.

"They give more to the neighborhoods with trouble because they think everyone will go inside and watch TV," one rumor goes. "No, they give them less for punishment," comes the reply.

City blocks often have two or three small operators running generators that power dozens of homes and shops for a few hours a day. Tangles of hundreds of multi-colored wires from the generators to customers are lashed haphazardly to every available pole and sometimes even trees: an electrician's nightmare.

Some homeowners can afford their own generators, often $100 Chinese models that last only a season or so and add a higher-pitched note to the neighborhood clatter.

One cause of the electricity shortage in Baghdad is foes of the government blowing up transmission lines. The big impediment, U.S. and Iraqi officials say, is that much of the power that should come to the city is generated elsewhere. Local leaders and militias sometimes won't allow it to be channeled to Baghdad, keeping it for locals instead.

The gap between the average duration of power and what residents really get each day — sometimes as little as an hour, some days none — is partly due to the fact that vital facilities such as hospitals, wastewater-treatment plants and police stations get power around the clock, said Brig. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, the commanding general of the Gulf Region Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Those who are lucky enough to live in the same neighborhoods get round-the-clock power, too.

Most, though, live like the Faekhs, squeezing their budgets by doing things such as eating less meat so that they can buy a trickle of power — 5 amperes — from a neighborhood generator for a few hours a day, and waiting for state power before they can use larger appliances.

Then there's the $5 they spend each day to buy ice for drinks.

As Akhbal and Abeer rose in the darkness to pounce on the washing and ironing, up and down the street their neighbors were alerted by their own signal lights or small, plug-in bells sold for the purpose. They leapt out of beds in gardens and on rooftops and dashed to appliances, washing clothes, ironing and baking bread.

Most didn't bother to turn on the air conditioning. An hour of cooling isn't much good.

The Faekh family moved to Baghdad a year ago from Baqouba after militants killed two of Haidar Faekh's nephews, kidnapped two others and detonated a car bomb in front of his uncle's home, killing the uncle.

The family moved so quickly that they were able to grab only some clothes, so their rented home in central Baghdad is barren of nearly everything except the appliances, which they know in ways most Americans don't.

Many housewives have become as adept with electrical meters as electricians are because they're always calculating what must be unplugged before something else can be switched on.

Akhbal rattles off the numbers they live by: The ceiling fan uses half an ampere, the washing machine 3, the television 1 and an "air cooler" — a kind of humidifier that makes the heat faintly more tolerable — uses 3.

When the state-supplied power is off, the Faekhs can run only the TV, ceiling fan, refrigerator and a few lights. The children still have to study by candlelight.

Only when it's on can they operate the freezer, the air cooler and the iron.

The shortage means profits for generator operators and thousands of jobs for those who tend them, such as Karam Hussein.

He works at a generator station in a northeast Baghdad neighborhood, keeping the fuel topped up, changing the oil once a week and adding new wires to the twisted mass that exits its circuit box and winds its way to about 160 homes.

In his neighborhood, the state power is on one hour in the morning and two at night.

The Iraqi ministry of electricity has a plan, said Walsh, the Corps of Engineers leader, to give the whole country full power by 2010.

Baghdad residents have heard such promises for years now.

"That is a distant dream, I think," Hussein said. "That is so far in the future, at that time we will be old; I will retire."

Hussein is 18.


The Brookings Institution's "Iraq Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction & Security in Post-Saddam Iraq."

(Price writes for The News & Observer in Raleigh. Hussein is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent. Special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this story.)